Sunday, September 11, 2005

Death sentences

No, not the kind of thing involving choosing your last meal and getting strapped into an electric chair, but sentences so bad they threaten the language with unnatural violence. My favourite has long been one from the dizzy heights of local newspaper journalism, the Eastbourne Herald. A description of a boy's cycling accident ended with the sentence, "He was rushed to casualty where doctors treated him but luckily he managed to avoid serious injury". I know doctors working 80 hours a week can make some dodgy judgements, but beating up small boys seems a bit extreme...

But nothing is so bad as the "death sentence" in the world of business, it seems. First up is news in the Financial Times that most people - especially young ones and women - would rather read the dietary information on the back of a cereal box than anything their bank sends them. Well, hello??! You needed a survey to find that out?! At least with a riboflavin in my Rice Crispies I know where I stand: no idea what on earth it looks like, but it's good for me, right? I didn't even bother opening the envelope that came yesterday from my new pension provider... No point cos it won't be written in any English I understand. Think of me when I'm living on dog food as a pensioner because of that envelope...

Don't believe me? Well, each year the Plain English Campaign awards a Golden Bull for appallingly unclear English in the public domain, and the Royal Bank of Scotland won it last year for a letter explaining that they had "retrocessed, reponed and restored executors and assignees, in and to their own right and place in the undernoted policy of assurance by our office...” Right, I see...

This is an issue of how language is used in a specific commercial sector - financial services. But the problem of language in the workplace is not restricted to this. In the second link, the writer notes many other examples of phrases used in management speak to try to make business processes and products sound more dynamic than they are. It reminded me of KwikFit's slogan "Our aim is customer delight". I always replace "customer" with "Angel" and only that makes the frustration of their extraordinarily slow fit of my tyres or exhaust bearable. Customer delight? That's actually a very scary prospect...

And finally, a piece in the Telegraph which touches on some of the communications issues that arise when British and American colleagues or companies work together. This covers a few examples of misunderstandings caused by words or phrases which have different meanings, but mainly focuses on business practices. But if you think about these, you will see how important they are in shaping the language. Look at the list at the bottom of the article and think about how each one would affect the use of politeness markers, the opening and closing sequences, the structure of the discourse.

Financial customers give financial know-how the heave-ho

Speak plainly

Two nations divided by a common language

Plain English Campaign


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